The House of Commons do not represent the people." Meanwhile a writer who styled himself Junius attacked the Government in letters, which, rancorous ana unscrupulous as was their tone, gave a new power to the literature of the Press by their clearness and terseness of statement, the finish of their style, and the terrible vigour of their invective.
The storm however beat idly on the obstinacy of the King. The printer of the letters was prosecuted, and the petitions and remonstrances of London were haughtily rejected. At the beginning of 1770 a cessation of the disease which had long held him prostrate enabled Chatham to reappear in the House of Lords. He at once denounced the usurpations of the Commons, and brought in a bill to declare them illegal. But his genius made him the first to see that remedies of this sort were inadequate to meet evils which really sprang from the fact that the House of Commons no longer represented the people of England; and he mooted a plan for its reform by an increase of the county members, who then formed the most independent portion of the House. Further he could not go, for even in the proposals he made he stood almost alone. The Tories and the King's friends were not likely to welcome schemes which would lessen the King's influence. The Whigs under Lord Rockingham had no sympathy with Parliamentary reform; and they shrank with haughty disdain from the popular agitation in which public opinion was forced to express itself, and which Chatham, while censuring its extravagance, deliberately encouraged.
It is from the quarrel between Wilkes and the House of Commons that we may date the influence of public meetings on English politics. The gatherings of the Middlesex electors in his support were preludes to the great meetings of Yorkshire freeholders in which the question of Parliamentary reform rose into importance; and it was in the movement for reform, and the establishment of corresponding committees throughout the country for the purpose of promoting it, that the power of political agitation first made itself felt Political societies and clubs took their part in this quickening and organization of public opinion: and the spread of discussion, as well as the influence which now began to be exercised by the appearance of vast numbers of men in support of any political movement, proved that Parliament would soon have to reckon with the sentiments of the people at large.
But an agent far more effective than popular agitation was preparing to bring the force of public opinion to hear on Parliament itself. We have seen how much of the corruption of the House of Commons sprang from the secrecy of Parliamentary proceedings, but this secrecy was the harder to preserve as the nation woke to a greater interest in its own affairs. From the accession of the Georges imperfect reports of the more important discussions began to be published under the title of "The Senate of Lilliput," and with feigned names or simple initials to denote the speakers. Obtained by stealth and often merely recalled by memory, such reports were naturally inaccurate; and their inaccuracy was eagerly seized on as a pretext for enforcing the rules which guarded the secrecy of proceedings in Parliament. In 1771 the Commons issued a proclamation forbidding the publication of debates; and six printers, who set it at defiance, were summoned to the bar of the House. One who refused to appear was arrested by its messenger; but the arrest at once brought the House into conflict with the magistrates of London. They set aside the proclamation as without legal force, released the printers, and sent the messenger to prison for an unlawful arrest.
The House sent the Lord Mayor to the Tower, but the cheers of the crowds which followed him on his way told that public opinion was again with the Press, and the attempt to hinder its publication of Parliamentary proceedings dropped silently on his release at the next prorogation. Few changes of equal importance have been so quietly brought about. Not only was the responsibility of members to their constituents made constant and effective by the publication of their proceedings, but the nation itself was called in to assist in the deliberations of its representatives. A new and wider interest in its own affairs was roused in the people at large, and a new political education was given to it through the discussion of every subject of national importance in the Houses and the Press. Public opinion, as gathered up and represented on all its sides by the journals of the day, became a force in practical statesmanship, influenced the course of debates, and controlled in a closer and more constant way than even Parliament itself had been able to do the actions of the Government. The importance of its new position gave a weight to the Press which it had never had before. The first great English journals date from this time.
With the Morning Chronicle, the Morning Post, the Morning Herald, and the Times, all of which appeared in the interval between the opening years of the American War and the beginning of the war with the French Revolution, journalism took a new tone of responsibility and intelligence. The hacks of Grub Street were superseded by publicists of a high moral temper and literary excellence; and philosophers like Coleridge or statesmen like Canning turned to influence public opinion through the columns of the Press.
But as yet these influences were feebly felt, and George the Third was able to set Chatham's policy disdainfully aside, and to plunge into a contest far more disastrous than his contest with the Press. In all the proceedings of the last few years, what had galled him most had been the act which averted a war between England and her colonies. To the King the Americans were already "rebels," and the great statesman whose eloquence had made their claims irresistible was a " trumpet of sedition." George deplored in his correspondence with his ministers the repeal of the Stamp Acts. " All men feel," he wrote, "that the fatal compliance in 1766 has increased the pretensions of the Americans to absolute independence." In America itself the news of the repeal had been received with universal joy, and taken as a close of the strife. But on both sides there remained a pride and irritability which only wise handling could have allayed; and in the present state of English politics wise handling was impossible.